September 2012

Chicken Feed

What do they eat, anyway? That’s one of the mysteries, and one of the things newbies wonder and worry about (at least if our experience is typical). On the one hand, you want your chickens to be healthy and happy, and grow, and not die. On the other, you don’t want to spend a fortune feeding them. If it costs three times as much to raise a backyard chicken as it does to buy a frozen bird at the coop, then it’s a much harder sell. And there’s a fair degree of disagreement between the respected, authoritative chicken guides. Storey’s Guide leaves you very doubtful you’re being a responsible chicken-keeper unless you buy the Starter crumbles, followed by the Grower and then the Layer, etc. On the other hand, Harvey Ussery grinds his own grain and says his birds get a large percentage of their needs off the pasture. So which is it?

Our birds are about a month old now (looking back at the blog I see they arrived on
August 8th — it seems like much longer!), and they’re living in their henhouse. They’ve almost got their full compliment of big-kid feathers now, just in time for the change of weather. So what are they eating?

We are feeding them on (non-medicated) Starter from the coop, but from the first few days we’ve been supplementing that. Many of the birds got pasty butts in the first few days, and there were several heat-lamps on them, so I don’t think it was from being too cool. The other cause (according to Harvey Ussery) is their diet. I gave them some corn meal (actually, the Masa we use for tamales), and some greens from the kitchen and grass clippings from the lawn. These seemed to help — and then when we started giving them grasshoppers, they were all better!

Grasshoppers have been a big part of their diet because there are so many in the lawn and fields. The kids have become expert at catching them, and regularly bring the chickens jars filled with treats. This has resulted in the chicks running toward us when they see us coming, rather than away, which is nice. And now they’ll take food from our hands.

They’re also getting cracked corn from the coop, and since they moved outside they’ve been eating grass and the bugs they can find. Now that I’ve got them tilling the area that’s going to be the hoop house, I’ve been mowing a small piece of lawn each day, and giving them a bag of clippings. They seem to like this, and they’re really practicing their digging skills, turning over these piles.

Today I gave them some leftover pasta that had spent too long waiting to be eaten, and some old spinach. The birds don’t understand transparency: if they can see an object, they think they can peck it. So I had to tip the container on its side. They liked the pasta, and treated it like grasshoppers. A bird would grab a piece and run with it, and the others would give chase. Some of the chicks even went outside to try to get away from their pursuers!

At some point, I think some of these birds will be dedicated compost specialists. We’re still getting used to the different temperaments. But I can definitely see the Jerseys as kings of the pile…

Winter Gardenagerie

The sun’s shining and it’s still shorts weather, but those days are numbered. Time to start to preparing for winter up north. We’re going to choose the best among the cockerels and put the rest in the freezer, but that will still leave us with at least a couple dozen chickens to take through the winter. And after reading Eliot Coleman’s Winter Harvest Handbook, we want to start trying to grow a little food in the “off-season.”

Coleman writes a lot about temporary structures called cold-frames and high tunnels, which he distinguishes from greenhouses because unlike greenhouses, you don’t heat them at all. These structures provide shelter from freezing rain, snow, and wind, but they don’t get any more heat than they can trap from sunlight during the day. In spite of this, Coleman claims you can grow a variety of hardy leaf-crops — so that’s what we’re going to try.

There are plenty of prefab hoop houses and high tunnels to choose from. Most are made of galvanized steel, with poly sheeting. I looked at several on
Farmtek’s website, but I wanted to start a little smaller. And a lot cheaper. So I started thinking about PVC.

In addition to the selection of PVC pipe sizes and connectors you can get at
the Depot, there are a growing number of websites like Creative Shelters and Formufit, offering what they call “furniture grade” PVC connectors in a very wide variety of sizes and shapes. I was originally thinking about a semicircular “hoop” design, like most of the steel tunnels I’ve seen (it’s amazing how many of these things you start seeing all over, once you’re aware they exist!). But the weight of snow concerned me. And obviously, if snow is lingering on the top of the structure, light isn’t getting through.

Then I noticed that in addition to all the T-connectors, Formufit has a 45-degree angle elbow connector. And they offer all this stuff in a range of diameters, including inch and a half, which I was starting to think might be better than one inch, for a largish structure that’s meant to stand up to northern winter storms. It occurred to me that 45 plus 90 plus 45 again equalled 180, which meant I could build something that looked like a house using off the shelf parts! So in the end, I redesigned our first experimental house so it has a pitched roof.

This structure is going to fit right behind the henhouse, so the chickens can get into it via their pop-hole. Part of it will be devoted to them, and part will be fenced off for the garden. It will be about 25 feet long, and just under 15 feet across. I messed around with the dimensions until I was able to get the most for my money, using 10-foot sections of PVC pipe I could buy at the Depot. So, for example, the “roof” pieces are seven feet and three feet long. They’re separated by a T-connector that allows me to tie them all together with pipe running lengthwise; and also to intersperse them with the supports that hold the building up.

People call this stuff tinker-toys for adults, and it’s true! Designing this and putting it together, I felt like a kid with a new Lego kit. I bought about 45 pieces of pipe for a bout $4 each. The connectors were about $270 (I bought a few more than I needed), and the poly sheeting and clip connectors to hold it on came to about $100. There’s some additional lumber for the ends (I’ll put together a detailed parts list and plans sometime soon, if it all works out as planned). So for about $600, we’ll have an experimental winter gardenagerie. That’s about a thousand bucks less than a
comparably sized round cold frame from Farmtek.

So far, I’ve cut and assembled the frame, and run chicken-wire around it so the birds can start tearing up the sod. In the next couple of weeks, I’ll build the ends, put all the posts into their measured bases, and throw on the poly. And start planting the winter garden…


DIY Electricity

Part of preparing for winter this year is preparing for power failures. Although the “last mile” of phone, cable, and power wiring to the houses in this part of town is all underground (a big improvement over New Hampshire, where even the posh neighborhoods were festooned with old-fashioned telephone poles and overhead wiring), that doesn’t prevent lightning from striking a substation or other types of power failures. So we’ve got our own source of short-term electricity.

There are two types of small-scale generators on the market. The older-fashioned ones are basically gasoline engines that spin a much smaller version of the bundle of coiled wires that generates electricity at Niagara Falls or the local coal-fired power plant. The gas engines are fairly efficient: when the power goes off, you flip a switch, open the choke, and give the starter one pull. Then you plug in your lights and appliances and you’re off to the races.

The newer type of generator is called an inverter. It is advertised as “broadband” technology, to the old generator’s “DSL.” But this isn’t a useful analogy, because the two devices do quite different things. Inverters, as the name implies, are all about changing the form of energy: specifically, they change alternating current (AC) to direct current (DC), and vice versa. The point of this is that DC can be stored in batteries, whereas AC can’t be stored at all (which is one reason our national electrical grid is so complicated, centralized, and inefficient — but that’s a story for another time). As a result, inverter type standby power supplies incorporate batteries as well as motors. They use the motors to charge the batteries, and the batteries to power your appliances. (for a more detailed explanation by a sales-guy, look

One result of this process is that the inverters are often much quieter. The motor isn’t constantly running, so you’re not using gas the whole time and you don’t have to listen to the constant hum. And you’re not running a 3500-watt motor to power 350 watts of load, so in the long run the inverter is more fuel-efficient. Another advertised benefit is that the power is “conditioned” as it goes through the inversion process, so you get a very smooth wave-form instead of the noisy, jagged signal produced by the generator. This is seen as beneficial because computers and other high-tech devices prefer “clean” power. A third result is that inverters are often several times the cost of a comparably-rated generator.

Unlike a lot of the people who buy generators (many of whom are campers, I guess, on the basis of the way these things are marketed), I’m more concerned about keeping the fridge, freezer, lights, water heater, pump, and (in a longer term outage) washer and range working, rather than my computer or entertainment center. I figure if there’s a major outage, I’m probably not going to be surfing the web anyway. And as far as clean power goes, we already have surge strips between the wall and the computers.

Also, if I’m buying a generator, I’m mostly interested in its generating ability. Batteries are something else. When I want to store electricity, I’ll buy batteries from a battery specialist, not from a small engine manufacturer (sorry,
Honda). And I may be interested in doing that at some point down the line. Wind and solar installations would both use an inverter and a bank of batteries — so it seems like it would be smarter to get them when the time comes, and think of the generator as just another source of raw power into the system. That will be the real, permanent DIY electricity story — this is just a small step on the way to that final goal.

So in the end, we got a generator that should keep the household appliances and lights on if the grid goes down temporarily. It will run for about half a day on a tank of gas — so in addition to the unit itself, I need to store fuel. I’ll be keeping and running it outside the main house (carbon monoxide is an issue as well as noise), and connecting to the house using two 100 foot extension cords. This unit has two 120 volt plugs, as well as a 220. So if there was a longer-term outage and we got tired of eating leftovers out of the microwave, we could connect the kitchen stove. Now I just have to track down where the well-pump gets its current from, and make sure I can attach a couple of the basic household systems so we can function when the lights go out.

Beulah Carlson

We lost a baby goat this week. She was a real cutie, too.

We got a second batch of animals last week, on a Sunday morning. Steph went to see her friend, and came home with two doe goats and a little white ewe. The littler of the two goats was a black and gray two-month old. Unlike the other goats we got, she wasn’t bottle-fed, but was raised on the field by her mother. So we expected her to be a little less tame. Even so, when Steph managed to catch her she was fairly friendly and not too skittish.

All the animals spent a night together in the barn, and things seemed to be going fine. The sheep and the goats seemed to be getting along. The little white ewe lamb was the most timid, always keeping the other two, larger sheep between us and herself. The goats seemed to be getting along well.

On Tuesday morning, when we opened up the barn and prepared to let the animals out onto the pasture, the little goat was laying on her side. She let out a cry when she saw us, and we knew something was wrong. Little Beulah was stiff as a taxidermied goat. Her legs were all straight out, and she couldn’t move them. She followed us with one eye, but couldn’t even crane her neck to look at us.

Beulah probably had tetanus. We still don’t know for sure, although in addition to what we were able to find out, we had an experienced farmer and a vet look at her. If it wasn’t tetanus, she might have had polio or have been poisoned. But tetanus seems like the most obvious conclusion. Apparently it is common in goats, and although the farmer we bought her from says she was vaccinated along with the rest of the babies, the shot didn’t work on her.

The most amazing thing about the situation (not counting the frustration and sadness of trying to help the little animal and failing) was that we were pretty much on our own. Most of the vets in the area only do small animals. One of the two large animal vets did not have the appropriate drugs, and the other (who did) was over an hour away. We were able to get hold of another sheep/goat farmer nearby, who was incredibly helpful and even met us at a nearby restaurant, since we aren’t that familiar with the area yet. He took a look a Beulah and
gave us some of the medicine he kept on hand for his own flock. Unfortunately, we later figured out that the antitoxin he gave us was for a different strain of clostridium (the one that attacks the animals when they overeat), so the shots we gave her over the next day were ineffective on the tetanus.

The next day or so were spent giving the poor little animal shots. Penicillin, antitoxin, and when she stopped being able to swallow the water we were squirting into her mouth, subcutaneous water. The penicillin may have helped her a bit the first time we gave it to her, because she was able to stand and walk a bit on her own for a few minutes. Then she stiffened up again, and we were fighting a downhill battle. We took her to a local retired vet who was a friend of the farmer we bought the animals from. He took one look at Beulah and announced that she had tetanus and the most probably source were the scabbed-over wounds from the de-horning procedure she’d been through a week or so earlier (tetanus normally takes 10-14 days to set in, and prefers the anaerobic conditions in closed wounds). He sedated Beulah and debraded the wounds, but warned us the prognosis wasn’t good. Unfortunately, he was right.

We learned from this experience that we need to be prepared for animal sickness. We were ready for worms, but not for something as seemingly random as tetanus. This was not something stressed in the books we read, which I suppose were written in a time when rural areas abounded with vets. The situation is not like dogs and cats, where you can just jump in the car and take them to an animal hospital. The regular vets don’t know anything about farm animals, large or small. The fact that lots of people are starting to keep small animals would seem like an opportunity for some enterprising vet to at least keep a few of the most common drugs in his fridge; but it isn’t one that has occurred to anyone around here. Luckily, you can buy penicillin, antitoxin, thiamin (for polio) and activated charcoal (for poisoning) online, and keep a supply in your own fridge.